Until about 850 BCE, Greece was ruled by kings, who passed down their kingdoms to their heirs. Around this time, known as “The Age of Homer,” kings began to confer with councils and rely on them to help make decisions about civil matters. Eventually, monarchies began to fail and, as Greek civilization moved toward democracy, there was a need for citizens to be able to speak on the topics of the day, to defend themselves in court, and even to compete in public speaking events at the Olympics. The ability to speak well, then, became a very important one!

The image below highlights some of the important figures in ancient rhetoric, from Greek rhetoricians Georgias, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (from 400-300 BCE) to Roman rhetoricians Cicero, and Quintilian (from around 100BCE to 100 CE).

Ancient Rhetoric Timeline

Image created by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC SA.

The Sophists

Because there was such a need to speak well in Ancient Greece, public speaking emerged as a profession. The men who practiced the profession of public speaking in the courts, in government, and in ceremonies were known as Sophists, or “wisdom bearers.” The meaning of the word sophist (greek sophistes meaning “wise-ist,” or one who ‘does’ wisdom, i.e. who makes a business out of wisdom; cf. sophós, “wise man”, cf. also wizard) has changed greatly over time.

Initially, a sophist was someone who gave sophia to his disciples, that is, wisdom made from knowledge. It was a highly complimentary term. While some sophists wrote speeches for those in the midst of litigation or traveled giving speeches on various topics, some founded schools to teach others how to speak well. Due to the importance of such skills in the litigious social life and the democratic political system of Athens, practitioners of such skills often commanded high fees. The practice of taking fees, coupled with the willingness of many practitioners to use their rhetorical skills to pursue unjust lawsuits and political power eventually led to a decline in respect for practitioners of this form of teaching and the ideas and writings associated with it.

Sophist Beliefs as Depicted by Plato

Skepticism and Relativism

Sophists traveled and witnessed diverse views of god and customs, and they developed relativistic or antagonistic views for religious faith, morality, and values. They presented a skeptical or critical or antagonistic view to the existence of an absolute, permanent, and objective standard of truth, viewing truth or a standard of good and evil as a matter of interpretation.  Protagoras’ phrase, “man is the measure of all things” indicates this relativistic view of truth.

If there is no objective standard of truth we can appeal to or can determine the validity of claims, arguments become like a game or a battle where winning or losing is at stake and rhetorical skills become a definitive universal tool.

Might is Right

In the absence of the objective standard of truth or right and wrong, the perspective of “might is right” emerged. Thrasymachus, another prominent sophist, developed this view. Citing historical cases, he challenged Socrates, and explained how winners in fact defined and determined justice and judged losers according to the standard they set. Thrasymachus held a view that power determines and defines good and evil. Even deceptive measures were justified as far as they serve for winning over opponents. This power based value perspective entails a nihilistic view of life.

In Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles explained that: the original state of society was a chaotic state of “war by all against all”; domination by power is a natural (physis) state of human life; the masses and the weak invent laws “(nomos)” to protect themselves; the powerful can break the laws and establish their rule.

The ancient notion of nomos as divine laws that dominated both gods and humans were no longer present in Callicles’ thought. There was no permanent or absolute principle such as divine justice that abided human society.

Reality and Appearance

If winning or losing is the essential matter, how one appears or looks to others becomes far more important than how one in fact is. Due to the denial of the existence of unchanging, permanent truth or reality, the world is dissolved and reduced to only appearance or phenomena. In Plato’s terms, Sophists stressed the importance of “appearance” over “reality,” “opinion” over “knowledge,” or eradicated their distinction since the world is theoretically limited to appearance in sophist worldview.

Secular Conception of Happiness

Sophists often identified happiness with pleasure and promoted secular materialistic social success. In their view, happiness can be achieved and joy can be experienced without moral goodness. Plato challenged and argued that human beings cannot experience genuine joy and happiness without being morally good.

Sophist Scholars

Georgias (483-375 BC)

Gorgias was one of the most important Greek sophists of the fifth century B.C.E., a philosopher, rhetorician, and a gifted writer of artistic prose. Some say that Georgias is considered to be the founder of sophism, though Murphy & Ketula note that sophism existed long before Giorgias. Georgias founded a school of rhetoric in Athens in 431 BCE.

Originally a native of Leontini in Sicily, he was sent to Athens in 427 B.C.E. as the head of an embassy to ask for Athenian protection against the aggression of neighboring Syracuse. He subsequently settled in Athens and supported himself by the practice of oratory and by teaching rhetoric.

A brilliant rhetorician, Gorgias also contributed to the diffusion of the Attic dialect as the language of literary prose. Several of his works remain in existence. Two of his performatory speeches, Encomium and Palamedes, illustrate the principles he used to make a weak argument strong, and On the Nature of Things uses Eleatic arguments to reach a number of nihilistic conclusions. Gorgias appeared in Plato’s dialogues as a moral relativist, and one of dialogues was named after him.

Protagoras (481-420 BC)

“Man is the measure of all things, of things that are as to how they are, and of things that are not as to how they are not.”

Protagoras  was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher born in Abdera in Ancient Greece. He was one of the best known Sophists.

Protagoras is best known for his dictum: “Man is the measure of all things.” He denied the existence of objective truth and values, replaced reality with appearance, and reduced truth to a matter of individual’s interpretation and perspective. Truth became thus relative to a group of people and individuals. Based upon the relativist view, as a Sophist he taught rhetorical skills to win arguments, thereby reducing philosophy from a quest for truth to mere skills of argumentation and persuasion. Both Socrates and Plato challenged his philosophy, and Plato named one of his dialogues after him.

Protagoras taught for nearly 40 years traveling Athens and surrounding cities, teaching the art of rhetoric and his philosophy to mostly wealthy Greek citizens. By the request of his friend Pericles, he drafted the laws of a new Greek colony Thurii. Protagoras wrote at least two books, Truth (or Refutatory Arguments or On Being) and On the Gods. His agnostic view of the gods presented in the latter caused his conviction on impiety and forced him to flee Athens, and his books were publicly burned. None of his works have survived except a few fragments.

He was discussed in Plato’s dialogues, Protagoras and Theaetetus in particular, and Aristotle’s Metaphysics (IV. 4-5). In Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, a teacher of rhetoric named Socrates was probably modeled after Protagoras or one of his followers.

Aristophanes (446-388 BC)

Aristophanes was a Greek dramatist of the Old and Middle Comedy period. He is also known as the “Father of Comedy” and the “Prince of Ancient Comedy.” The Old Comedy, dating from the establishment of democracy by Kleisthenes, around 510 B.C.E., arose from the obscene jests of Dionysian revelers, composed of virulent abuse and personal vilification. The satire and abuse were directed against some object of popular dislike. The comedy used the techniques of tragedy–its choral dances, its masked actors, its meters, its scenery and stage mechanism, and above all the elegance of the Attic language– for the purpose of satire and ridicule. Middle Comedy omitted the chorus, and transferred the ridicule from a single personage to human foibles in general. Aristophanes was one of the key figures of this transition.

He wrote forty plays, eleven of which survive; his plays are the only surviving complete examples of Old Attic Comedy, although extensive fragments of the work of his rough contemporaries, Cratinus and Eupolis, survive. Many of Aristophanes’ plays were political, and often satirized well-known citizens of Athens and their conduct in the Peloponnesian War and after. Hints in the text of his plays, supported by ancient scholars, suggest that he was prosecuted several times by Cleon for defaming Athens in the presence of foreigners; although there is no corroborating evidence outside his plays. The Frogs was given the unprecedented honor of a second performance. According to a later biographer, he was also awarded a civic crown for the play.

Aristophanes appears as a character in Plato’s Symposium, in which he offers a humorous mythical account of the origin of Love. Plato’s text was produced a generation after the events it portrays and is an attempt to show that Socrates and Aristophanes were not enemies, despite the attack on the philosopher in The Clouds (original production 423 B.C.E.). The Symposium is therefore best treated as an early chapter in the history of the reception of Aristophanes and his poetry rather than as a description of anything approaching a historical event.

Aristophanes’ Work

Legacy of Sophism

Though the sophists did not invent rhetoric (because oratory was a part of the culture), “they codified its rules, applied those rules to public discourse, and exemplified the rhetorical arts in their speaking” (Murphy & Katula, 19). Sophists laid the foundation for Greek education, but they also served as a force against the Greek morality. Their assertions that morality and the existence of the gods was up to an individual weakened Greek traditions and created a generation of skeptics.

For additional information, please watch this short documentary that discusses Sophism from Dr. Jordan B. Cooper:

Ancient Greek Rhetoricians

Largely because of their departure from the traditional morality of the Greeks, but also in part because they charged their students exorbitant fees, sophists were criticized by many intellectuals of the day. The fees charged ensured that only those with wealth could afford to be educated in rhetoric, which meant that the deck was stacked against those without resources. In addition, opponents argued that rhetoric should be used to find truth, rather than to argue pointlessly.

The most famous argument against the sophists was made by Plato, a student of Socrates. In his dialogues, Plato uses the voice of Socrates to argue against the sophists. In the dialogues, Plato argues that rhetoric is not good because its focus is solely about appearing to be the best, which means that an evildoer could go unpunished simply because he is a better orator. Instead, Plato argued that the discovery of truth should be the main focus of speech.

Socrates (469-399 BC)

Image of Socrates
Image of Socrates in the public domain.

Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher and one of the pillars of the Western tradition. Having left behind no writings of his own, he is known mainly through Plato, one of his students. Plato used the life of his teacher and the Socratic method of inquiry to advance a philosophy of idealism that would come to influence later Christian thought and the development of Western civilization.

Socrates made a clear distinction between true knowledge and opinion. Based upon his conviction about the immortality of the soul, Socrates defined true knowledge as eternal, unchanging, and absolute compared to opinions which are temporal, changing, and relative. Socrates was convinced that true knowledge and moral virtues are inscribed within the soul of every individual. Learning is, therefore, to cultivate the soul and make one’s implicit understanding of truth explicit. Socrates engaged in dialogues, not to teach knowledge, but in order to awaken the soul of a partner.

Truth, for Socrates, is something that should not only be discussed but lived, embodied, and practiced. Socrates understood the care of the soul as the primary task of philosophy and fought against moral relativists such as the Sophists. They mistakenly replaced the effort to discover truth with the practice of rhetorical skills understood as tools for social success, and substituted the pursuit of pleasure for the attainment of genuine happiness.

Socrates was prosecuted, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for charges of impiety and corrupting youth, a legal but unjust prosecution. Refusing to compromise with politically motivated opponents, Socrates took poison in prison, preferring an honorable death than flight from Athens to preserve his life. Thus he is revered as a martyr for the truth of philosophy.

Aspasia of Miletus

Although little is known about her because she vanished from history around 401 BCE, Aspasia of Miletus was perhaps the foremother of classical rhetoric as she is rumored to have taught rhetoric and home economics to Socrates. Her social position was that of a hetaera, or companion who was “more educated than respectable women, and [was] expected to accompany men on occasions where conversation with a woman was appreciated, but wives were not welcome” (Carlson 30). Her specialty was philosophy and politics and she became the only female member of the elite Periclean circle that included the most prominent Sophists of the day. In the circle she made both friends and enemies as a result of her political savvy and public speaking ability.


Plato (428-348 BC)

Image of Plato
Plato image licensed under CC BY SA 4.0.

Plato is perhaps the most famous and influential thinker in the history of Western thought. He was a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle. He founded the Academy in Athens where he lectured and taught. He also wrote dialogues on a variety of philosophical subjects such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, psychology, politics, and aesthetics.

As a student of Socrates, Plato wrote about rhetoric in the form of dialogues wherein the main character is Socrates. Through this form, the dialectic was born. Plato conceptualized a dialectic as a process of questions and answers that would lead to the ultimate truth and understanding.

Because he wrote in dialogue rather than treatise form, his ideas are not systematically analyzed, but presented in the more ambiguous and ironic form of the drama. This has resulted in a variety of interpretations of Plato’s work, and debates continue today over the precise meanings of his main philosophical ideas.

Ironic is the fact that while Plato contributed a great deal to classical rhetorical theory he was also very critical of it. In Georgias, for example, Plato argued that because rhetoric does not require a unique body of knowledge it is a false rather than true art.

Plato’s Work

Read Plato’s work HERE.

Aristotle (384-322 BC)

Image of Aristotle
Image of Aristotle in the Public Domain.

Plato became one of the most prominent thinkers in Athens, and it was in his school that Aristotle enrolled as a student, eventually becoming a teacher. Though Aristotle and Plato were close, they disagreed on key points. For example, while Plato condemned the art of rhetoric, Aristotle believed in the possibility of rhetoric as a means of creating community. Because of this and other disagreements, when Plato died, Aristotle left and taught elsewhere.

Aristotle wrote his Rhetoric, which encompassed the following topics:  establishing rhetoric as an art, the uses of rhetoric, the definition of rhetoric, the proofs, and the types of discourse. The terms ethos, pathos, and logos come from Aristotle’s work.

He focused on determining what makes a specific rhetorical act successful, which is what we would call rhetorical criticism today. His work forms the basis of our understanding of rhetoric today. He defined rhetoric as the ability to see, in each particular case, the available means of persuasion.

Two parts of this definition are particularly significant: the terms “in each particular case” and “persuasion.” The former suggests that Aristotle recognized the importance of context and audience; that a specific situation with a particular audience might direct the speaker, or rhetor, to create a message in a form that might look different in another context with another audience.

Aristotle also recognized the importance of audience analysis–that different things appeal to different people. The second part of his definition dealing with persuasion suggests that Aristotle conceptualized a very specific and limited scope for rhetoric. Rhetoric exists in contexts where a person or a group of people is engaged in the process of communicating for the purpose of changing another in some way.

Please watch this overview of Aristotle from Biographics (the end of the video, where the speaker compares Aristotle’s views with Plato’s is particularly interesting):

Aristotle’s Work

You can read the full text of Aristotle’s Rhetoric HERE.

Here is an audio version of Aristotle’s Rhetoric by Greatest Audio Books:

For more information about Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, see this short documentary by Lectures Beyond Beyond:


Did you know…While most of the classical theorists were men and dealt with traditionally male roles, Pan Chao (c. 45 CE-115 CE) provides historical insight into Eastern rhetoric and the role of women in rhetoric. A strong believer in the benefits of education, she was one of the first people to argue for the education of girls and women. Writing on the four qualifications of womanhood (virtue, words, bearing, and work), she said of womanly words, they “need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation,” but women should “…choose words with care; to avoid vulgar language; to speak at appropriate times; and to not weary others (with much conversation), [these] may be called the characteristics of womanly words” (Pan Chao 417).

Classical Roman Rhetoric

The Romans began ruling in Greece in 146 BCE, and it was not until 90 BCE that we see the first Roman rhetorician–Cicero, who studied both in Italy and in Athens.

Greek rhetoric appeared in republican Rome in the middle of the second century B.C. The teachers of rhetoric were Greek, and they taught in both Greek and Latin. Eventually Roman teachers were produced. The remarkable thing about Roman rhetorical theory, wrote Murphy and Katula, is that it appeared for the first time in its fullest form around 90 B.C., with very little direct evidence as to how it developed into its completed form. Sometime after Aristotle, writers refined and identified the subject of rhetoric into five parts—Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. These five canons are still a part of public speaking in education today. Two Romans stand out as quintessential figures of Roman rhetoric, Cicero and Quintilian. -Peter A. DeCaro, PhD.

Cicero (106-43 BC)

It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.                    ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero


Marcus Tullius Cicero (January 3, 106 B.C.E. – December 7, 43 B.C.E.) Cicero was a Roman lawyer, statesman, philosopher and writer who lived during the most brilliant era of Roman public life. An academic skeptic and a Stoic, he devoted himself to applying philosophical theory to politics, with the aim of bringing about a better Roman Republic. He translated Greek works into Latin and wrote Latin summaries of the teachings of the Greek philosophical schools, hoping to make them more accessible and understandable for Roman leaders. For Cicero,  rhetoric was more than just a series of rules. He believed that a speaker/writer needed “wide and deep reading; mastery of philosophy, law, history; command of humor, amplification, and digression; and psychological control of an audience” (Ochs in Murphy & Katula, 129). Many of Cicero’s original works are still in existence.

Cicero firmly held that oratory was more than legal pleadings or a school subject. Cicero considered oratory to be the highest form of intellectual activity and an instrument indispensable for the welfare of the state. In addition, he combined the three functions of the orator to the three levels of style.

–Peter A. DeCaro, PhD

For Cicero, politics took precedence over philosophy. Most of his philosophical works were written at intervals when he was unable to participate in public life and with the intent of influencing the political leaders of the time. He was elected to each of the principal Roman offices (quaestoraedilepraetor, and consul) at the earliest legal age, and thus became a member of the Senate. He became deeply involved in the political conflicts of Rome, an involvement which led to his exile during 58-57 B.C.E. and finally to his death. Cicero was murdered at Formia on December 7, 43 B.C.E., while fleeing from his political enemies.

Please watch “The Life and Death of Cicero” from The History Guy:

Cicero’s Work

Quintillian (35-95 CE)

Image of Quintilian
Image of Quintilian in the Public Domain.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (A.D. 3595) was a celebrated orator, rhetorician, Latin teacher, and writer who promoted rhetorical theory from ancient Greece and from the height of Roman rhetoric.

Quintilian opened a public school of rhetoric. Among his students were Pliny the Younger, and perhaps Tacitus. The Emperor Vespasian made him a consul. This subsidy enabled Quintilian to devote more time to the school, since it freed him of pressing monetary concerns. In addition, he appeared in the courts of law, arguing on behalf of clients.

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (English: Institutes of Oratory) is a twelve-volume textbook on the theory and practice of rhetoric by Roman rhetorician Quintilian. It was published around year 95 AD. The work deals also with the foundational education and development of the orator himself. Quintilian believed that rhetoric should be a source of morality. “Since the function of the orator is to advance the cause of truth and good government, Quintilian says he must by definition be a good man morally and not just an effective speaker” (Katula, 177). He also believed that a speech should stay genuine to a message that is “just and honorable.” This came to be known as his good man theory, embracing the message that if one cannot be genuinely good, then one cannot be a good speaker for the people. This theory also revolves around being of service to the people. A good man is one who works for the good of the people and the prosperity of society.

Please watch this brief introduction to Quintilian by Kritik1999:


Quintilian’s Work

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